Game Day is a new series that will feature Oakland teams and athletes every Wednesday afternoon.
The top two players on the Oakland Tech girls tennis team are playing each another at practice on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, and they’re smiling.
Kindness Nwakudu and Kristen Koyama and aren’t sure which of them will be playing in the No. 1 singles spot when they begin their season today against the Skyline High, the top team in the league the past few years, and this is their last practice to show who deserves the top spot.
But they don’t appear nervous or competitive. Their match is characterized with laughs, not cries of frustration or disagreements over a point. They’re having a great time.
When a shot by Koyama, a junior playing in the No. 2 singles spot, appears to land outside the baseline, she counts the point for Nwakudu, also a junior, and is quickly corrected. “That was in, Kristen,” Nwakudu says. “Was that in?” comes the reply from Koyama, already in to her serve for the next point. “Yeah, darn,” Nwakudu says, laughing. “Well, OK, 15-love,” Koyama answers, now awarding herself the point.
A big reason for the laid-back atmosphere on the Tech courts is three courts away, working with two of the newest players on the team. His name his Marlin Eagles, and he’s the coach. “He’s patient,” Nwakudu says. “He doesn’t shout at us. And he actually goes step-by-step, even though we should be ready.”
He doesn’t care how much experience his players have. “Most of the girls don’t play tennis (away from the team),” Nwakudu adds. “But he still teaches us.”
Eagles is a 69-year-old Oakland native, now in his sixth year at Tech, who also coaches the boys tennis team. He’s wearing his usual uniform for coaching – sunglasses, a burgundy hat and a blue warm-up suit – and he gets out on the court to instruct and play with the team every practice. He laughs as often as his players. He appears never to raise his voice and bark orders. When asked how he’s doing, his usual answer is, “wonderful, wonderful.”
Eagles, who ran a computer services business before retiring, said he’s been playing tennis for more than 40 years, a decade after his own high school days as a three-sport athlete (football, wrestling, track) at McClymonds High. He picked up the game in his late 20s, he says, because he wanted a lower-impact sport he could play for the rest of his life. “Little did I know how demanding it was,” he says, breaking into a laugh.
Eagles played competitively for local United States Tennis Association teams, but now focuses on coaching. He’s a paid coach, and the team is supported by the Oakland Tech PTSA, which helps supply equipment. Eagles says it doesn’t bother him that most of the 20 players on the Tech team had little previous experience on a tennis court; some, in fact, some had never picked up a racquet before. He also knows a large number of players on the team joined to make their applications to college look better. “They’ll probably be CEOs, not (professional) tennis players,” he says, laughing again.
He loves teaching the game, and showing young players how much fun it is to play tennis. “Primarily, I want them to have fun in a sport I’ve been a part of for a long time,” Eagles says. “There’s also the joy in coaching young minds that are expanding.”
He also takes in stride the unknowns that come with being the coach for a girls tennis team in the Oakland Athletic League – attendance at practice is sporadic, and Oakland High is the only other school with a team besides Skyline, so Tech will play each four or five times. The team also draws far less interest than other sports on campus, like soccer, basketball and football.
Instead, Eagles says he focuses on the joy of seeing a player improve and begin to really love playing tennis. One player he mentions was afraid of the ball, and used to run away from it, when she joined the team. Now she’s not only hitting the ball back, she wants to be one of the ten players selected to compete in Thursday’s match (each team selects four singles players and three doubles teams).
“That’s the kind of enthusiasm I like, and that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for this season,” he says.
Nwakudu and Koyama were similarly green when they joined the team – Nwakudu had played at summer camp, where a counselor encouraged her to go out for the team, and Koyama had never played before a friend encouraged her to try out during her freshman year.
Nwakudu says she’s learned strategy, and relishes the chance to play competitively. “My game has improved,” she says. “Here, I’m learning different ways to play.”
Koyama didn’t know how to hold a racquet on her first day. She says she was nervous when she first stepped on the court. But Eagles welcomed her to the team nevertheless, and three years later she’s one of the top players on the team.
“He really teaches you the fundamentals and basics of tennis,” she says. “I had never played, but he taught me how to improve my game, and just — how to just play tennis.”